Employee handbooks: Sample language to keep you out of trouble.

Your employee handbook is a crucial management tool. But getting that wording wrong can turn it into a weapon that employees' lawyers will wield against your organization in court.

With recent court decisions and COVID changes, updating your handbook now is more important than ever. Here are some essential do's, don'ts and sample wording:

Don't create a contract; clarify that employment is at-will

A contract is a binding legal document. You don't want your handbook to be considered a contract. That's because you cannot change a contract without getting the other party's consent on new language.

You can avoid creating a contract by specifically stating that the handbook is not a contract. You must also specify that employment is at-will. Then get employees to sign off on that statement when they receive a copy of the handbook. Do that every time you make changes to the handbook.

Sample language: This employee handbook is not a contract. The company can change the handbook at any time, for any reason. Employment with the company is at-will. That means the company can change employment terms and terminate employment at any time, for any legal reason. No employee other than the head of the company can bind the company for anything other than at-will employment. Any employment contract must be in writing and signed by the head of the company.

If you arbitrate, create a separate agreement

Arbitration has become a popular method for employers to avoid long court battles. Instead of suing, employees who have grievances against their employers must submit to arbitration.

Employers often put promises to arbitrate into employee handbooks. However, such agreements are, in fact, a contract. By adding contract language to the handbook, you muddy the waters. A judge may conclude the entire handbook is a contract. Avoid this by setting out the arbitration agreement as a separate document.

Sample language: The company uses arbitration as an alternative to litigation over workplace issues. You must sign a separate arbitration agreement that outlines our arbitration policy.

Update your anti-discrimination & harassment policy

You likely have a general antidiscrimination policy in your handbook. But if it's more than a year or so old, it's probably not broad enough. Don't simply state that you do not discriminate. Include language consistent with the Supreme Court's recent decisions that say Title VII's sex discrimination provisions also cover sexual...

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